WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

In a paper presented to the WELS Institute for Worship and Outreach in May of 2013, I wrote,

For the research and planning phase I am looking for a focused and interactive approach. I want our committee to discover 25 congregations who represent the ideal target for our planned digital worship compendium and planning application. These congregations should represent the vast middle of WELS and not edge cases. Their needs are common and also specialized. Their culture demands excellence and so we must provide the best. Their active worship ministry means that they struggle with the kinds of challenges we are working to solve. They are comfortable using current technology to serve their congregation. Their needs, their experience, and their feedback will give us the information we need to build something for them. By building something that works for those 25 congregations we build something that works for everyone.

The time has come to discover those 25 congregations. We are now accepting applications to be part of the focus group that will help the Technology Committee complete its work. Congregations in the focus group will help us determine the most common worship technology needs in WELS congregations. Congregations in the focus group will help us refine our vision for what the digital side of the future hymnal must do.

Before you write this effort off as something for only the most tech savvy congregations, I’d like to point out that we’re really looking for congregations whose ministry represents what most WELS congregations are like. We’d even like to have a congregation or two that are very methodical in their adoption of technology. This effort is about helping the Technology Committee learn what kind of real-life people will be using the hymnal in common, real-ministry situations.

If you and your congregation are willing to pitch in and do some work with us, please apply. You and your congregation can help shape the design of our future hymnal’s digital resources.

The application period closed on April 30, 2014.

You know what happens in your home congregation, but you wonder whether it is like that everywhere else. Your congregation, accompanied by the organ, nearly always sings the appointed psalm from Christian Worship with the pastor singing the first line of each verse and the congregation responding with the second line. Everyone in worship sings the refrain and the “Glory be to the Father.” Is that what every other congregation does?

From a comprehensive survey of WELS pastors, it turns out that only about one-third of WELS congregations handle the psalm that way. About 90% of congregations sing the psalm from Christian Worship (CW) or Christian Worship Supplement (CWS) every Sunday, but most of them do it in unison, not responsively.

Fewer than half of the congregations use a choir to help with the psalms, and those that do use a choir often do it only sporadically.

What It All Means for the Psalmody Committee

Those statistics have implications for the Psalmody Committee’s work. If we are going to produce a hymnal that meets the needs of WELS congregations, the arrangements of the psalms in that hymnal are clearly going to have to be singable by the average person in the pew. Psalm settings with a melodic arrangement of the verses sung by a choir or cantor will likely be provided, but probably in supplemental resources rather than the main hymnal that rests in the pews.

What About Musical Variety?

The psalms in CW all have the same type of musical setting (two-part chant line). The psalms in CWS introduced one other type of musical setting (four-part chant line). Do people like those settings, or are they bored of them? It was interesting that 96% of the pastors rated those settings as good or excellent.

Those statistics indicate that the Psalmody Committee should introduce any new musical settings very carefully. It appears to be OK to preserve the musical styles what we have already learned. Perhaps we could expand the number of psalms available to congregations in musical styles that they already recognize.

We have heard from some congregations that they struggle with singing the psalms at all. The Psalmody Committee may be able to help those congregations with speaking the psalms or with singing a hymn based on a given psalm.

In Summary

The Psalmody Committee is grateful to those who filled out the survey and helped us in our preparation of the psalms, which will always be a wonderful resource for Christian worship. We understand that there are more surveys of various groups to come, and we look forward to seeing those results as well.

The Technology Committee was excited to find that the recent survey of WELS pastors conducted by Northwestern Publishing House and the WELS Hymnal Project revealed several opportunities to serve WELS congregations with worship-related technology. The top three worship-related technology needs according to WELS pastors are 1) worship planning tools and resources; 2) digital assets (e.g., music graphics) for worship folders; and 3) digital sheet music for musicians. I believe that our emerging vision for a digital worship compendium aligns well with the expressed needs of WELS pastors.

Key insights from the survey

The Technology Committee gained several key insights from the results of the survey. We’re glad to have comments and reactions from so many WELS pastors. My committee has reviewed the entire survey and the following insights are among the most important that we learned from the study.

Worship planning remains a challenge

I could already infer that worship planning tools would be a top priority when I saw how much pastors rely on email in the worship planning process. 95% of pastors use email to communicate worship plans. 28% supplement the process with some sort of web-based sharing platform, which leaves almost three-quarters of pastors without the benefits of such web-based tools. Email, although ubiquitous, is ill-suited for the task of managing any complex, centralized process, including worship planning. As organizations discover the limits of email they begin moving to centralized communication systems that simply work better than email. Many congregations are headed that way, too. Even systems based on a hierarchy of files and folders (e.g., Dropbox, Google Drive) struggle to handle complex tasks. It’s no surprise, then, that WELS pastors expressly stated the need for better online tools to help plan and communicate worship.

Not only are WELS pastors looking for a tool to help them manage the complexity of planning and communicating worship, they are also looking for a way to quickly and easily find excellent worship resources to incorporate into their plans. Both survey data and anecdotal evidence seem to indicate that pastors are often unaware of the variety of worship resources that are already available in volumes like Christian Worship: Occasional Services, let alone the other resources available from the Commission on Worship, Northwestern Publishing House, or other liturgical publishers. A tool to help manage the complex job of worship planning should also deliver excellent worship resources to match a congregation’s context, that is, resources that support their journey through the lectionary as well as their individual needs for hymnody, psalmody, rites, and prayers. We should build something that helps good resources to surface when they’re needed instead of staying hidden out of sight.

Worship folders are widely used

A majority of WELS congregations use printed worship folders to assist worshipers. Of that majority, some print the entire liturgy as well as the hymns, while most (75%) direct worshipers to the hymnal for singing the hymns. Only 21% of pastors indicated that their congregations follow the liturgy from the front part of the printed hymnal. This seems to indicate that for the singing of hymns the printed hymnal still rules, but for speaking and singing the liturgy a worship folder is preferred (a small minority, 17%, also project the liturgy on the wall or screen).

WELS congregations will benefit from resources that improve the quality of their printed worship folders. Certainly musical graphics will be a part of that solution. Printable reproductions of hymns with reasonable copyright control will be essential. Options for both melody-only and four-part versions would be nice, too. (Also, we need to accept that gone are the days of delivering such files on a CD-ROM. A web-based, structured, and centralized solution is a must.)

A tougher question about worship folders is, “Do we want to provide a tool to generate the worship folders themselves?” I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but I do think there is potential in providing easy-to-access digital assets for worship folders along with professionally-designed worship folder templates. There is an opportunity here to provide the tools needed to raise the standard of quality for worship folders in WELS parishes.

Digital sheet music is an important niche

I’m glad to have the support of several church musicians on my committee because I don’t know much about digital sheet music. Digital sheet music seems to be changing rapidly as the market settles into the new computing paradigm made popular by the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Some promising products have emerged as companies try to carve out a market for digital sheet music. Still, the situation seems cloudy, at least in my mind. My committee includes a Working Group on Musicians’ Tools to provide in-depth study and review of existing products. They’ve already begun their research. We’ll work to find a solution that delivers to musicians the resources they need to adorn the gospel with their music.

WELS pastors are open to a subscription service

Three-quarters of WELS pastors indicated that their congregations would react favorably to a subscription-based funding model for a digital hymnal. If we wish to provide the resources that WELS pastors want, then we will need to build a business model that supports such technology in the long term. This is a change from the traditional model of producing a printed book.

The business model of a printed book requires a publisher to pour resources into the development upfront. Initial costs are rewarded by a burst of revenue as the book becomes available for purchase. Revenue begins to stream as the development expenses stop, leaving only maintenance and marketing, which are relatively small compared to the initial investment. A publisher can draw revenue from the sales of a book for many years while incurring relatively minimal maintenance and revision costs.


Figure 1: Traditional business model for books. These charts do not represent actual sales figures but illustrate the nature of the market in general terms. Download a high-resolution PDF of this chart.

Web-based resources require a different business model and the subscription model seems to be the most compelling option. A subscription model provides steady revenue to cover the cost of maintenance and improvement. Furthermore, the monthly or annual subscription fee can be structured to recoup the initial development costs over time. The subscription model also has the happy benefit of providing to any new subscribers full access to the entire digital hymnal. A quick glance at the market for software tools today reveals that the low-priced monthly subscription model is replacing the high-priced upfront purchase model. Even software giants like Adobe and Microsoft, which made billions of dollars in profit from selling packaged software, are moving to a subscription model in their core businesses.


Figure 2: Subscription business model for resources and tools. These charts do not represent actual sales figures but illustrate the nature of the market in general terms. Download a high-resolution PDF of this chart.

A hymnal is a long-term resource. The digital component of the hymnal is more of a service than a single product and therefore requires the sort of funding that enables it to last the lifespan of the hymnal. Subscriptions may be the solution, and three-quarters of WELS pastors responded favorably to the idea. That’s good to know.

Opportunity knocks

Beyond just the technology needs we discovered in the survey, I also noticed how the survey revealed the high level of confidence that WELS pastors place in the hymnal. 90% of pastors reported that their congregation sings Christian Worship psalmody. 75% of pastors reported that they rarely, if ever, use rites from a source other than Christian Worship or Christian Worship: Supplement. And a minuscule 2% report that they regularly look beyond Christian Worship or Christian Worship: Supplement for hymnody. Other committees will dig into the insights we can learn from how congregations are using hymnody, psalmody, and rites, including what sort of changes and improvements may be needed, but for now it’s clear that pastors believe that they can trust what is published in our hymnal.

That level of trust not only compels me to be as faithful as I can in helping to build the next hymnal, it also reminds me that opportunity is knocking—maybe even pounding—at the door. Great trust combined with excellent, curated resources delivered in a modern, useful, and efficient way will be the foundation for excellence in worship. The data indicates that a digital hymnal has great potential to serve WELS congregations. We can meet real needs to support and assist worshipers throughout our synod.

In January, a survey was sent out to all active WELS pastors in order to gather information about how the Christian Worship line of resources is being used and input about the direction of the new hymnal project. 807 pastors completed the survey. We are thankful for the information that has been provided.

At its February meeting, the project’s executive committee spent time discussing the results. Over the next few weeks, each of the project’s subcommittees will be sharing some of the information that was gathered as well as insights as to how it will help them in their work.

Three more surveys are planned during 2014: one for teachers, one for musicians, and one directed at any and all congregation members (“the people in the pew”).

Thank you for continuing to share your input and ideas with us. We are eager to continue to listen!